The purpose business is becoming lucrative. There has been mounting evidence over the last two years indicating that purposeful businesses are doing better than companies who are not yet demonstrating their social or environmental value. And the voices of customers, employees and shareholders alike are getting louder in demanding to see better behaviour and more meaningful contributions from the brands they choose to buy from, work for, and invest in. This has led increasing numbers of corporates to seek help meeting these increased expectations, by looking to identify their purpose beyond profit.
Unsurprisingly this demand has led to a number of new ‘entrants’ to the purpose consulting market, many from large multinational PR agencies keen to cash in on the action. And who can blame them? After all, brand purpose has been talked about in the marketing and comms industry for some years, and this is their stock in trade.
Now, don’t get me wrong – as someone who spent the first half of her career in PR, I would never seek to denigrate communications, as I hugely value the role it has to play in building successful brands and helping business achieve its aims. But I am not sure it is the right discipline to work with to develop a company’s social purpose. Why? Because communicating your company’s purpose should only really take place once you have defined what it is, and built evidence of it from the inside out.
Take the trend for “CEO Advocacy” as an example. There is a lot of noise from communications professionals right now about the importance of the CEO championing a cause they are passionate about and taking a ‘campaigning stance’ on that in the media. And whilst I’m all for using individual leaders’ authentic passions as a centrepiece for their public profile building, this is a sticking plaster approach to building a purposeful business.
CEOs come and go within a few years, so if a company’s purpose has been built around their personal pet cause or charity, what happens when they leave and the company needs to maintain that legacy? Granted, if you have Founder/CEO such as Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia who has a crystal clear mission around which the whole business has been built from the ground up, or Paul Polman who took ten years to completely re-engineer the whole Unilever juggernaut around his Sustainable Living vision, then this approach can work. But for most companies this is not the case.
Earlier this year, the cosmetics company Lush suddenly decided to run a storefront advertising campaign criticising the police officers who had infiltrated political groups undercover. The ‘campaigning stance’ came out of the blue, did not seem to fit with any pre-disposition or historical connection Lush had to political campaigning, and appeared to be just a cynical attempt to use the appearance of an ethical stance as a headline grabbing strategy. The result was a huge media and consumer backlash against the company and resulted in an embarrassing climb-down and damage to its brand.
So whilst there is a vital role of communications once a strategy has been developed and fully embedded, the real nub of creating a purposeful business must come from the heart of the company – it has to be embodied not just by business leaders, but by all employees and should be palpable in every interaction with every audience throughout the whole value chain.
I see purpose as the invisible thread that runs through your organisation, driving you to solve real world problems, and giving your business value and meaning. Key questions you need to be able to answer in order to define your company’s purpose include – what are the pressing social and environmental problems that your business is helping to solve? What unique contribution does your business make that no other organisation is equipped to fulfil? What would be different in the world if your business no longer existed?
You can’t answer these kinds of probing questions with a good strapline or a few op eds from the CEO. It takes a nuanced understanding of macro-economic, regulatory and geo-political issues that are framing the need for businesses to join the purpose revolution. I worked long and hard when I transitioned from communications into sustainability strategy to re-educate myself around this complexity, and still struggle to keep up with it each day.
My plea to businesses is to think carefully about what kind of specialist you work with on your purpose strategy. As tempting as it is to try and take shortcuts through painting a veneer of purpose onto your brand strategy – your long-term success will be far greater if you build it from the ground up.